The U.N.’s Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) conference released a second draft text late in the afternoon on Thursday. After initial reactions from states, the questions still at issue came into focus. In order of significance, the top five questions are:
1. Will the treaty be amendable by consensus or by two-thirds majority? The first draft text, released Tuesday, allowed amendments by a two-thirds majority of signatories. This means that, if the U.S. signed and ratified the treaty, its foreign policy and constitutional liberties would be subject to majority rule. The new draft requires amendment by consensus.
A consensus mechanism is far from perfect, but it is certainly better than majority rule. Many nations want to return to the two-thirds approach. That would by itself be more than enough to justify the U.S. breaking consensus on the final treaty text.
2. Should the ATT use the terms export and import (or trade), or should it use transfer? The first draft used the term transfer. This was changed in yesterday’s draft, in part at the urging of the U.S. delegation, because transfers could refer to the domestic sale of firearms. Many nations have urged a return to transfer, implying that, for them, the ATT is in part about domestic gun control. This should draw a U.S. rejection.
3. Should the ATT refer to the “end user” of an exported weapon (describing an individual), or should it refer to “end use” of such a weapon (describing an activity)? The first draft uses “end user”; the second draft uses “end use.” Again, many nations like the original text, and, again, the change reflects U.S. input. The reason for the change is that the U.S. does not license individual firearms owners at the federal level. It is very dangerous that the working group on this issue is being run by Mexico, which has consistently argued that the ATT should affect transfers inside the U.S.
The same issue lies behind a closely related and equally contentious issue: Should the ATT refer to “unauthorized end users” or “non-state actors.” A large number of nations want it to do so, in part because they want a treaty that urges the disarmament of the rebel groups in their own countries (and of their own citizens). But again, this language either implies federal firearms registration in the U.S. or could be held to apply to individual firearms owners.
4. Should the ATT recognize the so-called rights of self-determination, national liberation, or resistance to colonial occupation? All of these terms sound innocent, but all are U.N.-speak for supporting terrorism against the U.S, Israel, and other U.S. allies. The current draft does not include these so-called rights, and if, as a substantial number of nations have requested, they are re-inserted, they too should draw a U.S. rejection.
A related issue is whether the treaty should include the right of territorial integrity, which is a U.N. code word used by fragile states in Africa and other ill-governed nations with rebellious provinces. Its inclusion would create an obstacle to U.S. support for any geographically based rebellion against tyranny, such as the one which resulted in the creation of South Sudan.
5. Should the ATT place balanced demands on importers and exporters? What this innocent-sounding language means is that various dictatorships and autocracies want a treaty that would create a right for Iran (for example) to buy arms from the U.S., or an obligation by the U.S. to sell arms to Iran, or an ability to appeal to the World Court of Justice for any refusal to sell arms, or an obligation on major powers (meaning the U.S.) to disarm. There is no end to the amount of mischief that concepts of this sort can imply, and none of it is acceptable. The only reason this issue is not more critical is because there is less momentum behind it: it appears to be too obviously dangerous for even a majority of the U.N. to swallow.
That’s not all, of course. There is continued pressure from many nations to put ammunition in the scope of the treaty—instead of as part of national export control systems, as in yesterday’s draft—and an interesting squabble about whether regional integration organizations (such as the EU) should be allowed to sign the ATT. And with a text that has only been available for a few hours, study and analysis continues. Right now, the most that can be said is that the latest draft of the ATT is marginally better than the last one, but many nations are still trying to make a fundamentally bad idea worse.
Will an ATT be agreed the end of today’s session? I have said all along that I believe it will, and nothing I saw yesterday made me change my mind. But there are many ways the treaty could still fall apart, and if the odds are in favor of a treaty, the margin is narrow.